Opinion | A Progressive James Bond Is Proof of American Cultural Imperialism
By Ross Douthat
After so many decades fighting evil masterminds bent on Britannia’s destruction, the 21st-century version of James Bond has found a very 21st-century antagonist. In the newest Bond novel, “On His Majesty’s Secret Service,” 007 is charged with protecting King Charles III from a dastardly plot hatched by a supervillain whose nom de guerre is Athelstan of Wessex — in other words, a Little Englander, a Brexiteer, a right-wing populist, apparently the true and natural heir to Goldfinger and Blofeld.
The novel’s Bond, who carries on a “situationship” with “a busy lawyer specializing in immigration law” (not to worry, he’s not taking advantage, “he wasn’t the only man she was seeing”), must travel to Viktor Orban’s Hungary to infiltrate the vast right-wing conspiracy and avert a terrorist attack at Charles’s coronation; along the way the secret agent muses on the superiority of the metric system and the deplorable dog whistles of populism.
The book’s mere existence seems designed to agitate conservatives; I wouldn’t have read it without the spur of hostile reviews from right-of-center British scribblers. But the progressive Bond also usefully illustrates an interesting feature of contemporary politics in the English-speaking world. It isn’t just that American progressivism supplies an ideological lingua franca that extends across the Anglosphere, such that what we call “wokeness” naturally influences the fictional MI6 no less than the real C.I.A. It’s that forms of progressivism that originated in the United States, under specific American conditions, can seem more potent among our English-speaking friends and neighbors than they do in America itself.
This is not a fully provable assertion, but it’s something that I felt strongly on recent visits to Canada and Britain. Politically, Canadian Conservatives and Britain’s Tories seem to be in very different positions. In Canada, the Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, looks poised for a major victory in the next election, which would end Justin Trudeau’s three-term reign as prime minister. In Britain, the Tories are poised for a drubbing in the next election, which would push them into the opposition for the first time since 2010.
But in power or out of power, both groups seemed culturally beleaguered, resigned to progressive power and a touch envious of the position of American conservatives (if not of our political captivity to Donald Trump). In Canadian conversations there were laments for what was lost when Trudeau defeated Stephen Harper in 2015 — how elections have consequences, and the consequences in Canada were a sharp left-wing turn that no Conservative government is likely to reverse. In British conversations, the talk was all about how elections don’t have consequences, and how notional conservative rule has done nothing to halt the resilience of progressive biases in government and the advance of American-style wokeness in the culture.
These complaints encompass a lot of different realities. In Canada, they cover the rapid advance of social liberalism in drug and euthanasia policy — with nationwide marijuana decriminalization followed by British Columbia’s new experiment in decriminalizing some harder drugs, while assisted suicide expands more rapidly than in even the most liberal U.S. state. In Britain, they cover the increasing enforcement of progressive speech codes against cultural conservatives — like the Tory councilor recently arrested by the police for retweeting a video criticizing how police officers dealt with a Christian street preacher.
In both countries the complaints cover rising immigration rates — the conscious policy of the Trudeau government, which is presiding over an extraordinary surge in new Canadians, and the sleepwalking policy of the British Tories, who despite Brexit and repeated populist revolts find themselves presiding over record net migration rates. (By contrast, when America elected the immigration restrictionist Trump, immigration rates did actually decline.)
And in both countries, conservatives feel that their national elites are desperately searching for their own versions of the “racial reckoning” that convulsed the United States in the summer of 2020, notwithstanding the absence of an American-style experience with either slavery or Jim Crow.
Thus the spate of national apologies, canceled patriotic celebrations and church burnings in Canada in 2021, following claims about the discovery of a mass grave in British Columbia near one of the residential schools for Indigenous children that the Canadian government sponsored, often through religious institutions, in the 19th and 20th century. (The cruelty and neglect at these schools was real but the specific claims about graves at the B.C. school have outrun the so-far scanty evidence.) Or thus the attempted retcon of England’s deeply homogeneous history — well, since 1066, at least — into an American-style “nation of immigrants” narrative, and the sense, as the British writer Ed West wrote in 2020, that in English schools “America’s history is swallowing our own.”
To the extent that these complaints capture an Anglosphere reality, I think you can identify several different points that might explain what Canadian and British conservatives are seeing.
The first is a general tendency of provincial leaders to go overboard in establishing their solidarity and identification with the elites of the imperial core. Both Ottawa and London can feel like provincial capitals within the American imperium, so it’s not surprising that their leaders and tastemakers would sometimes rush to embrace ideas that seem to be in the American vanguard — behaving, as the British writer Aris Roussinos puts it, like “Gaulish or Dacian chieftains donning togas and trading clumsy Latin epithets” to establish their identification with Rome. By contrast in continental Europe, in countries that are under the American security umbrella but don’t share as much of our language and culture, the zeal for imitation feels a bit weaker, and “anti-woke” politics that double as anti-Americanism feel more influential.
The second point is the role of secularization and de-Christianization, which are further advanced in the British Isles and Canada than in the United States. The new progressivism is not simply a new or semi-Christian substitute for the former Western faith, but the rhetoric of diversity-equity-inclusion and antiracism clearly fills part of the void left by Christianity’s and especially Protestantism’s retreat. So it would not be surprising for an ideology that originates in the post-Protestant precincts of the United States to carry all before it in post-Protestant Canada or Britain, while meeting more resistance in the more religious regions of America — and not just in the white-Christian Bible Belt but among the religious-conservative minorities whose rightward trend may be keeping the Republican coalition afloat.
Then the third point is that smaller countries with smaller elites can find it easier to enforce ideological conformity than countries that are more sprawling and diverse. Once a set of ideas take hold among the cognoscenti — progressive ideas in this case, though it could apply to other worldviews as well — it’s more natural to conform, and more difficult to dissent, in the cozier precincts of Westminster or among Canada’s Laurentian elite than it is in the American meritocracy, which spins off more competing power centers and dissenting factions.
An extreme example of this tendency is visible in Ireland, which shifted incredibly rapidly from being the West’s conservative-Catholic outlier to being close to uniformly progressive, a swing that the Irish writer Conor Fitzgerald attributes to a fundamental reality of small-island life: “Because of Ireland’s size, it is much more socially costly for an Irish person to appear to go against a consensus than it is for other people in other countries.”
A recent essay by the Cardiff academic Thomas Prosser makes a related point about other small Celtic polities, noting that Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland have governments that are more progressive than their voters, a pattern he attributes to the way that ascendant ideologies (neoliberalism in the 1990s, or woke progressivism now) can sometimes achieve a kind of full elite “capture” more easily in smaller countries.
Bucking consensus is presumably easier in Britain and in Canada. But not as easy, perhaps, as in the vast and teeming United States — which in its First Amendment-protected multitidinousness can be both the incubator of a potent new progressivism and also the place where resistance to that ideology runs strong, indeed stronger even than among 007 and other servants of His Majesty the King.
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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT • Facebook
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